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What Democrats Need To Say Before Bush's Speech

[ Posted Wednesday, September 12th, 2007 – 03:30 UTC ]

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have now reported to Congress on the situation in Iraq. President Bush will address the nation tomorrow night on television. But we already know in advance what he's going to say -- that he is in favor of American forces in Iraq going through a gradual drawdown of the "surge," which will end in the summer of 2008. This will leave us right in front of the final stretch of the presidential election, with exactly the same number of soldiers in Iraq -- 130,000 -- as we had when the Iraq Survey Group gave its report in 2006 (just after the midterm congressional elections). This is supposed to be "progress," according to the White House.

Democrats in Congress have to quickly decide what to do about this state of affairs. Because if they do nothing, the Republicans are going to run next year on the following slogan: "Trust us to take care of national security -- we are bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq, but we're doing it in a sober, reasonable, and adult way; by listening to the counsel of generals and taking their advice seriously. Democrats have obviously proven they do not have what it takes to put America's interests before politics, and we do."

Whether this political strategy will work or not is an open question, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it will be the campaign spin from the Republicans. And it might prove to be more effective than it now sounds. If Democrats aren't careful, Republicans could wind up owning the "withdrawal" as a political issue.

The American public has already decided that it's time to get out of Iraq. No matter what the consequences, voters are sick of the situation and want us out. But they also want a plan to get out that both (1) protects soldiers as we leave, and (2) also seems like a reasonable and intelligent plan.

Congressional Democrats have been unable to provide this one solid plan to the public. Some might argue that they simply don't have the votes to force through whatever they want (especially over the inevitable Bush veto), but this ignores a larger political problem for the party. This problem can be accurately stated as: they don't even appear to be trying very hard. And that could reap disaster in next year's election for the party as a whole.

Political impressions are almost as important as political realities, and if Democrats seem as if they can't even stand up to congressional Republicans, then why should American voters trust them to stand up to Osama Bin Laden (for instance)?

For everyone who cheered the resignation of Karl Rove, the White House PR machine seems to be humming along very nicely without him. Congressional Democrats (while carping about the Iraqi Parliament's month-long vacation) took the entire month of August off -- as, indeed, they do every year. They were all supposed to go back to their home district and eat barbeque and corn dogs for a month, then come back to Washington for the Iraq debate.

Problem is, the White House didn't waste August in this fashion. They put on a blitzkrieg PR offensive to sell the idea that the "surge" is working -- both to the press and to the public at large. To a large degree, this has changed the debate in Washington. Not so much with the public, but when the Democrats finally put down the spareribs and potato salad and returned to Congress, they found that the entire Washington political atmosphere surrounding the Iraq debate had changed.

Now, they're struggling to coalesce around a strategy for what to do next. As always, the inherent "herding cats" nature of the Democratic Party is in the spotlight for all to see. Which is a shame. They've already lost on how to "frame" the debate in September, and they're desperately trying to figure out a cohesive response that will resonate with the American people. Unfortunately, they're coming up with some pretty weak answers.

Now, to be sure, this is happening during the presidential primary season, which means that several Democratic candidates are trying to claim the mantle of "leader of the party," so there's bound to be some jockeying for position. But (unlike Republicans), rather than trying to outdo each other, Democrats seem to be falling all over themselves to appear polite and reasonable to the other side in the debate (with the notable exceptions of Richardson, Kucinich and Gravel, who are all valiantly trying to pull Democrats towards a stronger anti-war position).

Granted, the Democrats just do not have the votes in Congress to shove something down Bush's throat, so in the end they're probably going to have to compromise a bit to gain Republican support. But the key phrase in that sentence (which the Democratic leadership seems to be ignoring) is: "in the end." Not: "at the beginning."

Some will balk at what I am about to say, and call it "playing politics" in the midst of a war debate. I disagree. Because the Democrats are on the side of protecting U.S. troops by getting them out of an impossible situation. In other words, they have the high moral road in this debate. If they were playing politics with soldiers' lives merely for political gain then I would agree that this is crass, unseemly, and borders on the criminal. Fortunately, this is Bush's position and not the Democratic position.

A basic political truth is that the majority party in Congress can't always get what it wants passed and signed into law, especially with a sitting President from the opposing party. But the way this situation is supposed to be handled is that the majority votes on the strongest possible bill first, which forces the minority to vote on record opposing such a measure. When the bill dies (through presidential veto or other means), then these votes can be quite effectively used on the campaign trail against the minority party's incumbents.

This is Politics 101. If you'd like an example of how devastating this can be on the campaign trail, please see John Kerry's quote: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

After you've forced such votes on the minority, then you can start talking about compromises. But not before. In the immortal words of drive-in movie critic (and at-large social critic, to boot) Joe Bob Briggs: "I'm surprised I have to explain this stuff."

While the American public understands that Democrats may fail in their efforts to rein Bush in (due to the congressional math of adding up veto-proof votes), they simply will not understand or forgive if Democrats don't even make the attempt. If, on the one hand, the party is seen as trying as hard as possible to get their plan passed -- but failing in the end -- then the public will still respect them for trying. But if they are seen as not even able to make that attempt in the first place -- then the public will have nothing but scorn for the party. And rightly so.

Do the Democrats want to increase their majority in the Senate? This is the way to do it. There are several Republican senators already horrified about their chances for re-election, who really need to be on the record on such votes; from such states as Maine, New Hampshire, and Oregon... to name but a few. Their feet need to be held to the fire, first and foremost. After doing so, and after the strongly-worded measures go down to defeat, then start talking compromise.


Sorry, but sometimes it's depressing to root for congressional Democrats. Their love of consultants and triangulating does wear on one at times....

In any case, I wrote this article because I saw the three alternatives (read that as "compromises") floated by Democrats this week to the mainstream media. Now, I must say that in the past few days, Democrats seem to be waking up to the political reality that they're about to get steamrolled (once again) on Iraq, and they have begun stating their case a bit more forcefully... but they've still got a long way to go. And President Bush is about to use his "bully pulpit" to the nation tomorrow night, so it's not as if Democrats have a whole lot of time to turn this around.

From an AP article on the subject of what Democrats may do next:

Other Democrats and several Republicans say there is plenty of room for compromise. Congressional aides say bipartisan proposals are in the works and that [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid has reached out to several GOP senators to discuss potential common ground. However, a major hurdle remaining are politically influential organizations like who say Democrats shouldn't water down the debate with more moderate legislation.

Alternative legislative proposals on Iraq include:

* Ordering troop withdrawals to begin this fall, but set the spring date of completion as a nonbinding goal.

* Limit the mission of U.S. troops to training the Iraqi security forces, fighting terrorists and protecting U.S. assets, but leave it up to military commanders to determine force levels.

* Demanding Bush submit a new war strategy to Congress by fall that would limit the mission of U.S. forces and begin drawing down force levels in coming months.

Didn't Democrats used to have some union bosses in their makeup? When did Democrats lose all sense of how to conduct negotiations? If you're in a position of strength, don't lead with a weak compromise!

[Sigh.] Sorry.

Instead of capitulating before the debate even begins, how about flooding the airwaves today with the following unified Democratic message, from every Democrat who comes within range of a microphone or camera:

"We're pleased that President Bush is about to come around to the Democratic way of thinking. He will be announcing tomorrow night what the Democratic leaders in Congress have been strongly advocating for months now: that we need to start intelligently and safely withdrawing American troops from Iraq. Bush has resisted this commonsense strategic shift in our efforts in Iraq for over four years now, and he has even vetoed legislation designed to bring about this goal, but he now finds himself backed into a corner. He has the choice of either completely breaking the Army, instituting a mandatory military draft, or of pulling soldiers out... because there are no soldiers left to send into his senseless pre-emptive war.

"Democrats have been pleading with Bush to change course for years now, and he is finally admitting that the Democrats have been right all along. The only way political progress in Iraq can be achieved is by letting the Iraqis fight their own battles, and for America to cease to be seen as an occupying force in Iraq. The vast majority of American citizens came to this conclusion long ago, and it has taken the White House until now to follow the people's lead on the matter.

"While we are glad that President Bush is now seeing things in the same cold light of reality that Democrats have been attempting to shine for a long time on the situation in Iraq; we also believe he is coming very late to this conclusion, and that his withdrawal plan -- like most things the White House does -- is a problem of 'too little, too late.' We will work with the White House to insure a safe and effective withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in the coming weeks, and we are glad President Bush is finally coming around to the Democratic position -- which is also the mainstream position of two-thirds of the American public.

"We Democrats are confident we can convince congressional Republicans to get on board such a Democratic initiative to save American troops' lives, and we are also confident that the White House will also see the wisdom of the American people on this matter. We would hate for the war critics to be proved right when they assert that Bush is only interested in passing this matter off to the next administration, and that Bush's biggest goal right now is to 'kick the can down the road' for the next President to deal with.

"That is a horrifying thought to contemplate when American fighting men and women's lives are on the line, and we instead feel assured that Bush will indeed see the wisdom of our approach. Instead of sacrificing American soldiers needlessly in a shallow attempt to inject politics into what should be a rational debate about how best to protect American interests and American soldiers' lives, Bush should indeed take this chance to follow the Democrats' lead on this issue."

That is what I am waiting for the Democrats to say. But they've got to say it today, or at the latest tomorrow, in response to Bush's speech. Because if they wait past that point, they're going to lose the PR fight once again.

Democrats need to present such a narrative to the public. Because if they don't, Bush and the Republicans are going to present "getting out of Iraq" as a Republican idea. And with their echo chamber in the right-wing news media, they could actually get away with it.

What continually astonishes me is that I am one average American sitting at a keyboard, and I can come up with such "framing" for Democrats to use -- fairly easily on my part. Is it really so hard for Democratic politicians (and their advisors) to recognize what seems to be so obvious? Have these people truly been inside the Beltway so long they have lost all perspective on how the public sees these things?

I sincerely hope not, but I have to wonder. The next week or so will tell.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


10 Comments on “What Democrats Need To Say Before Bush's Speech”

  1. [1] 
    Michale wrote:

    >Congressional Democrats have been unable
    >to provide this one solid plan to the public.

    I have been saying this since Sep 2006 that THAT is the biggest problem the Democratic Party has..

    They don't have a plan.. For ANYTHING... They just figure that their right and everyone else HAS to see it, so why bother coming up with a plan??

    I also agree with you that a lot of the stuff you post above is a "no brainer" to anyone with a modicum of political sense..

    So, this brings us back to the question I put in your previous commentary..

    WHY ARE THE DEMOCRATS acting like the GOP??

    Only 2 possibilities make any sense..

    1. They have been politically castrated by the GOP...

    2. Due to information they have that the general public is not privy to, the Democrats realize that, in this case, the "Bush Doctrine" is the right doctrine.

    I would love to see that second possibility explored more.. It IS possible that the Administration and Congress have intel that is so frightening and catastrophic that it is forcing Democrats to toe the line with Bush and just giving half-hearted lip service to appease the anti-war crowd...

    One really has to wonder what could possibly be so bad that the Democratic Party would sell their political souls for...


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    Interesting article here by Camille Paglia

    While it is ostensibly a slam against the GOP and, to a certain extent is right, I think it's interesting what she says about the Democratic Party..

    To sum things up... While she slams the GOP for the over-bearing and heavy-handed approach to the war on terror, she also takes the Democratic Party to task for their plan-less, half-witted and mealy-mouth approach.. Those are my adjectives, not hers, but I think it accurately portrays the point Ms Paglia was trying to convey..

    A while back, when STAR TREK:THE NEXT GENERATION may Ron Moore and Rene Echeverria burn in hell!!) debuted there was a huge TV Guide spread about the differences between Capt James T Kirk and Capt Jean Luc Picard and many polls were taken.. When asked who would they want to have spearheading a diplomatic initiative, overwhelmingly (not surprising) the general public choose Capt Picard. But when asked who would they most want to command troops in battle, the choice was (again, not surprisingly) Capt James T Kirk....

    My point??

    The Democratic Party is Capt Picard.. The GOP is Capt Kirk...

    The American Public wants... No... NEEDS Capt Kirk at the helm... When ass is sufficiently kicked, then Capt Picard can come in make sure everyone makes nice and plays well with others...


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    Michale -

    You know, you're right. The problem I always had with Picard is the exact same problem I have with the Democrats.

    "Mr. Worf, we will retire to my ready room to discuss the attacking vessel using chess metaphors, liberally quoting Shakespeare while we banter."

    ...could have come out of the mouths of many Democrats currently in office, in one form or another.


    Camille Paglia is always a hoot to read. I disagree with her about as often as I agree, and she does tend to pick some academic battles I could care less about, but she's always fun to read.


  4. [4] 
    Michale wrote:

    I have a hard time trying to discern who Ms Paglia is for.. Ostensibly she is a Democrat but I have read some of her stuff where she really rips the Dems a new one...

    On another note, I guess Senate Democrats have decided that they, and not the generals in theater, know the best strategy for Iraq...

    Guess what.. That will make the Iraq War fully and completely owned by the Democrats...

    Which is probably what the GOP wanted all along...


  5. [5] 
    Michale wrote:

    I seem to recall that, a bit ago, the Democratic Party was bitching and moaning about how President Bush is not listening to the generals in the field.. I remember that it was THIS specific General (General Patreus) that the Democrats wanted Bush to listen to.

    Now that things are going good and the surge IS working, the Democrats don't want to listen to General Patreus anymore..

    Strange how the Democratic Party wants to listen to General Patreus, but only if they think he is going to fail..

    Seems to be a pattern developing...

    Democrats move the goal posts when the surge starts saving American lives...

    Then, they don't want to listen to the SUCCESSFUL General, but DID want to listen when they thought he would fail...

    Just who'se side is the Democratic Party on???


  6. [6] 
    Michale wrote:

    Interesting comments from Susan Estrich:

    Primaries are won on the Left and Right. General elections are won in the middle. That’s the problem Petraeus poses for Democrats. If he could convince MoveOn, this would be easy. But he can’t and won’t. The danger is that he convinces folks in the middle that it would be irresponsible to simply pull out troops now, rather than trying to stabilize the situation further, that there is enough improvement both politically and militarily at the grass roots level to follow his schedule, rather than a Democratic one, that he knows what is happening on the ground in Iraq better than people who aren’t there.

    My comment: This is what the Democrats SAID they wanted Bush to do.. Follow the advice of the generals

    The risk for Democrats is that those who take him on will be seen as naïve or weak or beholden to the Cindy Sheehans, which is not a direct route to the Oval Office. The other risk is that those who don’t will be attacked and belittled for failing to do so, and will never make it to the finals in this contest. It was a whole lot easier when this was just Bush’s war.

    Oh how I love to see the Democrats squirm over this...

    Hoisted by their own Petard...

    The Democrats said, "Let's give Bush and Petraeus til Sep. That will give them MORE rope to hang themselves..."

    Too bad for the Democrats that the "rope" is now a lifeline for the Bush Administration and it looks like it will also be the "Hanging Rope" for the Democrats...

    It will be interesting to see if the Democrats can get out of the corner they have painted themselves into..


  7. [7] 
    CDub wrote:

    It's one thing to 'listen to the generals', but it's another thing to discard generals until such time that you find one that says what you want to hear, and then pretend that you are listening.

  8. [8] 
    Michale wrote:


    I agree completely..

    So, I guess that means the Democratic Party is shopping around for a General that they think will fail..

    Seriously though.. The problem with your assertion is that we're talking about the SAME General.

    The Democratic Party wanted Bush to listen to General Petraeus at the beginning of the surge when they (the Dems) thought for sure that the surge would fail.. Now that EVERYONE agrees the surge is working, they want to disregard the advice of the very same General...

    Funny how that is, eh??


  9. [9] 
    CDub wrote:

    Michale wrote:

    So, I guess that means the Democratic Party is shopping around for a General that they think will fail..

    Hmmmm, unless there's been an impeachment while I was sleeping, the democrats have no say over which general is in charge of Iraq ... what is Petraeus, Bush's fifth or so?

  10. [10] 
    Michale wrote:



    Apparently, the Democrats aren't sure which General they want Bush to listen to..

    5-6 months ago, they wanted Bush to listen to Petraeus..

    Now that Bush has and things are actually going good in Iraq, NOW the Democrats say that Petraeus is a "liar" and has "betrayed" the US and all sorts of other vile garbage..

    Another example of the Democratic Party and their ever-busy Goal Post Moving business....


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